Can we learn from the Alpha Course?
The Intentional Disciples (a United States based group blog “devoted to the baptismal call, spirituality, gifts, vocations, ministry, work, history, theology, evangelization, formation, bad jokes, and pastoral support of lay Christians seeking to live their faith in the 21st century”) have an interesting discussion up on their blog regarding the rapid spread of the Alpha Course, a Christian evangelical movement pioneered by Nicky Gumble at Holy Trinity Brompton. (The Alpha Course/Alpha Movement/phenomenon was featured in Time Magazine last year).
Sherry W, who authors the piece, looks at the Pros and Cons of the Alpha phenomenon, which is increasingly being embraced by Catholics as a tool for evangelisation. She writes about an International Conference which took place at HTB this summer, where she writes, 25 of the 1,500 participants at the conference were Catholic bishops and archbishops. Across the globe, people use the 10-week course, which teaches some basic tenets of Christianity (sometimes from a perspective that is too protestant for Catholic tastes on questions of Salvation and Church) and allows people to encounter the Gospels.
“So why are Catholics embracing it? Because they know that the overwhelming majority of our people – active or not – have never been evangelized, that the initial proclamation of Christ and challenge to follow him has not taken place.
“We don’t seem to know how to do that ourselves and Alpha works. (And in my experience, overwhelmed pastors just love stuff that works.) And Alpha comes in an attractive, well tested plug and play package. And has a formidable global marketing arm behind it. (FYI, a very effective and truly Catholic equivalent of Alpha is in the final stages of development in the diocese of Corpus Christi.)
“And my point is?
“Simply that there are significant forces at work in the Church that we aren’t discussing or even aware of around St. Blog’s. Beyond our tight culture war categories of “traditionalist” “neo-con”, “liberal” and whatever. Like the Alpha course. Which is being held right now in thousands of Catholic parishes around the world with the support of their local bishops.”
Read the rest of this extremely thoughtful post here. The Comments on the post are well worth a read as well.
On a random side note, I remember seeing a number of the Catholic participants in the Alpha International Week this June attend an Extraordinary Form votive Mass for (I think it was) Corpus Christi at the Brompton Oratory’s Little Oratory.
My own feelings about the Alpha course are mixed. I’ve never attended “Alpha in a Catholic Context” but went to the first of the 10 talks to hold a friend’s hand during her first encounters with religion while I was an undergraduate. The people were very friendly. We were given non-alcoholic smoothies (and our personal space was invaded somewhat), then we sat down to dinner and were encouraged to chat with the others, some who had come to find God, others who had already found him and were helping to spread the word. Jesus’s name came up in conversation, a lot, which I must admit I was not all that comfortable with. There was catchy music and someone gave a rather emotional testimony about his conversion during our meal. Really not my thing, but it appeals to people who are searching for answers to the existential Angst of the age, but who are too frightened to enter a church or simply do not know where to turn.
While it is–as Sherry argues, but not without caveats–a helpful tool for the evangelisation of those who have never encountered the Gospel, it ultimately offers only a limited vision of Christianity, especially for Catholics. But we must recognise the fact that we live in a time, where 50 per cent of Britain’s teenagers identify as atheists, upon whom allusions to the Gospel are completely lost (as the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out recently after he had gone into a school and actually had to teach children the Gospel because they weren’t familiar with it) and so perhaps, embrace something like Alpha, that gets the Word out there.
Perhaps the question should be, why do Catholics find it so difficult to spread the Gospel? Should we be learning our ABCs from them?